Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Portrait of the Artist as an ex-Zookeeper.

It no longer surprises me when I meet someone who’s transitioned from a scientific career to an artistic one. (Or vice-versa.) My first boss out of art school was a former geneticist. Her artistic claim to fame was working on the design team that created the Legg’s pantyhose eggs. “People don’t remember what type of hose or cereal they buy,” she confided in me. “They remember what color egg, or box it comes in.”

It’s all in the details, literally. Scientists render detailed drawings of microbes and diatoms to study what makes them tick. Artists belabor the details of an ad, or a book cover, because one typographical element or golden mean can make the difference between a success and a flop. Perhaps my eye for detail allowed me to pupate from zookeeper to designer in a surprisingly short amount of time. In two very intense, sweat and blood filled years, I learned the sullen ways of the designer and adopted the de rigueur black clothing.

What fine institution of the arts did I attend, you may ask? Why, Alamance Community College, I’ll proudly offer. Let me summarize the experience:

Classes at Alamance began at 8:00am sharp. Those of us taking computer graphics and desktop publishing might stay in class until 9:00pm. Attendance was compulsory: miss three classes and you’re out. Tardy too many times? You’re out, too. It was a harsh contrast to my undergraduate experience at UNC, where my Biology and Chemistry professors lectured in monotone voices to vast auditoriums of student cattle. At Alamance, classes contained an average of 15 students. The poorly prepared and hung-over students were easily identified, but so were the studious and hard working. I busted my butt at that school, and my reward was a great job straight after graduation in an interactive multimedia firm. Two years of vocational experience and hands-on internships landed me farther than a Biology degree from a well known university. Yeah, I was older and wiser, but I also discovered the value of a practical education versus a theoretical one.

I chose community college by chance. I originally planned to attend a frou-frou “Art Institute” that offered classes with MTV animators and Hollywood special effects guys. My cousin convinced me that I could save money and expedite a career change by attending a community college in state. (He happened to be the registrar of a community college at the time.) He assured me that the curriculum and graduate placement rate at Alamance rivaled the Art Institute. This sounded much better than selling all I had, accruing student loans, and moving to Fort Lauderdale.

“And so I loaded up the Honda and drove to Ala-mance Countee... From Chapel Hill, that is…Southern drawls, Bible belt, barbecue…” Yep, I learned my trade in the bosom of the poor South, in a tiny school that was cutting edge for multimedia and advertising design. Along the way, I encountered a novel’s worth of characters and made steadfast friends. From Henry, a sweet guy with no belly-button, to “RFJ”, a gentle giant with a bullet studded necklace, I learned there was life after lemurs.

black and white ruffed lemur

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Attack of the Muses, Part I.

I haven’t decided yet; either I’ve entered a personal creative renaissance, or, I’m having a premature mid-life crisis. I’ve recently found creative outlets in music and digital art, and I occasionally write vignettes for this blog. I find it ironic that I am wrapped up in extracurricular arts, when I actively spurned the creative community in the past. I’m a recovering snob artist.

The rebellion began when I was a wee lass. My second grade teacher predicted that someday I would author a book, since I was such a gifted writer. How did I repay her? By not bothering to finish our “Make Your Own Book” project. All the other kids in my class wrote a story, drew pictures to accompany it, and bound the book with a decorative cover. The books ranged from “Jeff the Scubadiver” to “A Ladybug’s Day.” Alas, there was no title authored by me. I spent that time at my desk in the “punishment corner” for slacking off. The teacher didn’t realize she was enabling my slackitude since the punishment corner was bordered by a bookcase. I slyly pored through book after book, while my toady classmates made their little booky-wookies. I only regretted my apathy when the local paper published an article about our class project, including a picture of Jeff Keeling with his handmade book. My mother still has that article in a scrapbook. I would seethe at the picture of little Jeff, Jeff who didn’t write or draw as well as me, Jeff who got his picture in the paper...

My disdain for public displays of creativity continued in high school. By this time, I was a proficient sketch artist and had begun to investigate painting and illustration (at home, that is.) My mother didn’t understand why I wouldn’t enter the Bookfair poster contest, or help her draw a flyer for a school fundraiser. “You haven’t even signed up for art as an elective! Why don’t you want to take art?” she bemoaned.

“That’s just art and crafts,” was my curt reply. In my mind, art class was veritably a “special ed” class for untalented geeks. (In reality, the art class was inhabited by an odd flock of birds, but there were very talented folks in the mix.) I smirked at the hallway displays of their artwork, haughty pride well intact.

By college freshman year, I was illustrating in pencil, charcoal and ink, and painting with oil, acrylics and watercolors. Yet I chose to major in Biology. I classified my scientific interests as noble, whereas my artistic interests were frivolous diversions.

My perceptions changed slightly when I realized that painting and drawing classes could be GPA boosters. I began to relish the freedom of illustration classes, where we were encouraged to wander the campus and draw the inspiring surroundings. My coup de gras was a charcoal rendering of a neon bar sign, sketched in a tavern across from campus. My classmates toasted my ingenuity as we sipped beer and flourished charcoal smudges across newsprint pads. My instructor passed the mandate “No more classtime sketching in bars” but gave me an “A” anyway.

Post graduation, I landed a job as a zookeeper of sorts. I became absorbed in the world of primatology, and toyed with ideas of graduate school. I continued to paint and draw on the side, helped design a few tee shirts, and even illustrated a book cover for a fellow primatologist.

I’ve never thought about it until now, but I guess it was a life changing moment when Steven Nash came to the Primate Center. (He’s a scientific illustrator who specializes in primate illustration.) He had come to render figure studies of our lemurs for an illustration project. Somehow, I got the guts to show him a lemur pencil sketch I’d been working on. I couldn’t believe it when he showed enthusiasm for my work and my potential as a professional artist! Something clicked that day, when I perceived that his encouragement was genuine. I finally recognized that illustration could be a viable career, not just a hobby. I was primed for a change: I was tired of raking poop, and I’d soured on the feudal system that is grad school. Art school looked pretty darned attractive at this point.

Stay tuned for the next installment: “A Portrait of the Artist as an ex-Zookeeper.”

lesser bushbaby